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Woody Weingarten

Drama draws laughs while probing serious subcultures

By March 10, 2013No Comments


Jackie (Gabriel Marin) and Veronica (Isabelle Ortega) get violent in “Motherf—-r with the Hat.” Photo: Jessica Palopoli.

My hat’s off to “Motherf—-r with the Hat.”

It’s off to the comic drama for having the most immoderate theatrical title in years, one that may cause scores of potential ticketholders to stay home — even in liberal, liberated San Francisco, Marin County and vicinity.But my hat’s also off to playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis and director Bill English.

They instilled “Motherf—-r” with a throbbing energy, kept my attention with verbal fireworks that relentlessly took apart lies and liars, and overlaid gobs of humor onto the often painful words of people trapped in lower socio-economic hookups.

“Motherf—-r” also provided a shrewd look at sub-cultures — 12-step programs, for example, and the easy availability of guns and bats to vent rage.It didn’t take long, however, to know this was no nursery rhyme for Rotary Club attendees — the opening scene finds Veronica (Isabelle Ortega) snorting cocaine and swearing like a longshoreman.

It also didn’t take long to know the 100-minute, intermission-less show was going to have an undercurrent of poignancy: Jackie (Gabriel Marin), smalltime drug dealer and parolee who’d spent two years in prison, barges in to hand the woman he’s adored since eighth grade a bouquet of flowers, a chocolate bar, a Lotto ticket, a stuffed animal, tickets to a movie, and news that he’s found a job.

Almost instantly, though, he finds the fedora featured in the title, along with other signs she’s been cheating.

So we’re off to what rapidly descends into a sexual roundelay, a comic romp and a semi-tragic snapshot of star-crossed lovers.

Actors in supporting roles — Carl Lumbly as Ralph, Jackie’s drug-counselor, and Margo Hall as Victoria, Carl’s angry wife — helpfully wear their characters like second skins.Yet Rudy Guerrero (Cousin Julio) is the consistent show-stopper. He’s over-the-top funny, especially when embroidering a macho Jean-Claude Van Damme persona onto his meek hairdresser gayness.

From time to time, there’s an all-too-familiar quality to the characters (despite Guirgis claiming Jackie hits multiple points of autobiography). But the persistent twists and turns of the plot lead them into fresh if depleted places.

And although chunks of the dialogue seem uninspired, others are dazzling. Frequently, in fact, individual lines become perfect permutations of what Guirgis apparently was striving for:

• “My wife is the reincarnation of Benito Mussolini.”• “Don’t underestimate my capacity for violence.”

• “You think you’re the only motherf—-r who’s hurting here.”

• “The real world largely sucks.”

• “No point in killing the messenger if you’re not gonna absorb the message.”

• “I love loving.”Particular praise is due Lynne Soffer, the dialect coach. Accents are consistently real — as, for the most part, are the five characters Guirgis invented.

Sure, the recognizable Puerto Rican and black types in this production — being presented here in association with the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre — do now and then veer into the underbrush of soap opera and caricature. At their best, however, they offer perspectives on the quest for hope, for love and trust, for forgiveness.The 2011 Broadway production of “Motherf—-r” was nominated for half a dozen Tony Awards. Chris Rock did a star turn (as did Bobby Cannavale), which made that production a little larger than life.

In contrast, the intimacy of the 300-seat SFPlayhouse, with seats only nine rows deep, almost puts you onstage right in the middle of the action.

And that, when it works, can be captivating.“Motherf—-r with the Hat” plays at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco (second floor, Kensington Park Hotel), through March 16. Night performances, 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Matinees, 3 p.m. Saturdays. Tickets $30-$70. Information: (415) 677-9596 or